Harold Stiller returned from a successful dinner meeting to find his daughter sleeping in his bed, holding onto his wife. In the dim bedroom, from a slight distance, their two bodies appeared to be one form. The way that his daughter had her body curled, it looked like an extension of his wife’s belly, as if—again—his wife were pregnant with the child.
It wasn’t until he reached the side of the bed that Harold could actually see what was happening: his wife’s nightshirt was pushed up to her chin, and his five-year-old daughter had her mouth on his wife’s left nipple. The child sucked absentmindedly, on and off as she slept. Harold could hear the familiar sound of his wife breathing in her sleep.
This is not my family, he thought to himself.
The pink sheet was darkened where the child’s saliva had slid from his wife’s breast onto the mattress. Harold was reminded of his daughter’s infancy, when her constant nursing left sour-smelling wet spots on the bed that never seemed to dry.
Perhaps this transpired while they slept, he thought. For a moment he was almost touched, almost in awe. They were lovely really, his wife and his daughter, comforting one another in their sleep. It was wrong for Harold to stay out so late and leave them alone like this. They were both so delicate, so overwhelmingly female.
Harold decided to wake his daughter quietly, in order to avoid rousing his wife, to protect her from needless shame. He gripped the child’s shoulder, pulled her slowly from his wife’s breast. When his daughter opened her eyes, immediately wide awake, he considered kissing her forehead, but decided against it.
“It’s time to go to your own bed,” he whispered, trying to lift her in his arms despite her body’s resistance.
“You’re late,” she said. “We’re already sleeping.” She wiggled her body out of his arms and back onto the mattress.
“I’m home now,” Harold said. Part of him wanted to use his strength against her. It was easy to imagine: he could grab her more tightly; in truth, he could fling her small body from the bed with very little effort. He could get into bed with his wife and leave the child to fend for herself until morning.
Harold took a deep breath. “Come on, Ava,” he said—he said it nicely, his voice practically singing the words.
“I’m sleeping here,” she insisted, slapping her palm to the mattress, claiming his side of the bed.
Harold looked at the child’s small fingers outstretched on the sheet. Her nails were painted with the same dark purple polish his wife had been wearing since he met her. “You always get to sleep with Mommy,” the girl complained.
Usually Harold was energized by his own feelings of anger and frustration—at the office, they tended to work in his favor and fuel his productivity—but the more his daughter argued with him, the more exhausted and defeated he felt.
Finally, his wife opened her eyes, looked at Harold and smiled. Heidi had dark lips and pale skin everywhere else. Her nose was long and angular, but somehow there was a softness to her face, the pink swell at her checks and the fullness of her lips creating this delicate balance that made her beauty striking rather than harsh. Harold’s beautiful wife. It’s how everyone in his family referred to Heidi.
“This is my bed,” he told his daughter. “Mine and your mother’s. You have your own bed to sleep in.”
Heidi said nothing. She lay still and silent on her side of the bed, her chest still exposed, her left nipple shiny with the girl’s spit and slightly swollen. As if trying to block his view, Ava backed up against her mother, out of Harold’s reach.
“I’m getting ready for bed now,” Harold announced, and in response his daughter rocked her body against her mother’s, and Heidi put her arm around the girl. “When I come back,” Harold said, “she’s going to her room.”
“OK,” Heidi said, and she kissed the back of the girl’s head. “Go ahead,” she said to Harold, but he stayed at the side of the bed.
When Ava was a baby, Heidi would often send Harold out of the room as she tried to lull the child to sleep. One night, when Ava was particularly agitated, Harold, out of concern, stood in the doorway to make sure they were OK. Ava wasn’t walking yet, but she held onto the crib’s railing and pulled herself up onto her feet, where she bounced clumsily and, with one hand, reached for her mother, almost losing her balance as she swatted at Heidi’s chest, attempting to grab hold of her breast, as if it were no different than any other object in the infant’s world, there for her to take and consume.
Harold stood in that doorway and watched his wife reach her hand into her brassiere and pull her breast out over her shirt. Holding the child steady with her other hand, she leaned forward and fed her just like that, Ava’s head flung back and Heidi’s heavy breast hanging down into the child’s mouth.
Heidi must have felt self-conscious all of a sudden, once it was happening, because she turned and looked to the doorway, only to find Harold still standing there, watching them. She waved her arm at him, wanting him to leave, but Harold found it difficult to move or even look away. He remembered the mobile, a constellation of blown glass spheres, that spun above Heidi’s head as this was happening, thinking that it was the slow, steady speed of its rotation that was making him feel so dizzy.
It wasn’t possible that the girl, at five years old, was still nursing. Harold reminded himself that he had regular, physical contact with his wife and knew this for a fact. Still, part of him worried that, if he left them alone for even a moment, they’d return to the state in which he’d found them, the girl’s mouth clasped over his wife’s nipple like it was something that belonged to her.
Your wife is sexy, his intern had said a few days before, leaning down to look at the picture of Heidi that Harold kept on his desk.
“Are you going or not?” Ava asked him. Sometimes the tone of her voice when she spoke to him was so devoid of respect Harold felt not annoyed or insulted but pathetic, as if he and Heidi had somehow created a monster who would soon overtake them both.
The side of the girl’s head was pressed to her mother’s on Harold’s pillow, their long hair—Heidi’s slightly darker and Ava’s a little bit blond—intermingled on the pillow and over their shoulders.
Ava stared up at Harold and widened her eyes. “Go!” she said. “Stop standing there!”
When he didn’t move, she turned her head from Harold to face her mother. “It’s not fair,” she complained. “You two sleep together every night, and I have to sleep all alone in a tiny bed.” She began to whimper.
Heidi pressed her palm to the top of the girl’s head. “When you get married,” she said, “you can have a big bed, and you can sleep with your husband like Daddy and I sleep together.” She moved her smile from Harold to the girl and back again, as if to say, Just look at us, Harold! Just look at what we made!
Ever since Ava was born, Heidi had developed a cutesy, almost fairytale view of their lives. There were things that were good and things that were bad, a right way to do things and a wrong way. Harold supposed this was something almost evolutionarily predetermined, this ability to guide one’s offspring in a way that a child could understand. In truth, Harold was sometimes comforted by it himself.
“Married people sleep in big beds,” his wife consoled, “and little girls sleep in little beds. It’s just the way it is.”
Ava flung herself onto her back and crossed her arms at her chest. “I don’t want to get married,” she said, “I want to sleep with you!” She stretched one of her legs across her mother’s hips and left it there.
Every night Harold watched his daughter’s body contort this way, into utter desperation. She rarely slept through the night without rushing to their room for comfort. It was heartbreaking, really, her overwhelming need.
Heidi stroked Ava’s head, and the girl began to relax. For a moment, Harold wanted to get into the bed with them, to comfort his daughter and give her what she wanted, but as usual, he felt unwelcome.
That morning, at breakfast, Harold watched his wife and daughter make faces at one another, some kind of staring contest they played on and off at almost every meal, a game that never included Harold. Ava sat with her feet on her chair, her knees to her chest, and her shins pressed to the table.
“What’s on the agenda for this weekend?” Harold had asked, trying to engage with them.
“How come you always ask that?” Ava said in response. When Harold didn’t answer her immediately, the girl tilted her head and stared at him. She dropped her legs to the floor and crossed her arms in front of her chest. She lifted her shoulders to her ears and mimicked him: What’s on the agenda for today, she said and sighed, her voice deep and full of mock anger.
“Is that what I sound like to you?” Harold had asked.
The girl looked at her mother and nodded, this huge, exaggerated nod that made her giggle. The giggle turned into a full laugh, Ava’s mouth open so wide Harold could see bits of pancake in her teeth and on her tongue. She pounded her fists to the table a couple of times before Heidi put a hand on the girl’s shoulder to calm her.
Now Ava was lying on her back in his bed, sucking on the middle and ring fingers of her left hand, her pinky and forefinger propped against her upper lip, her head tipped against her mother’s shoulder. A dimple appeared and disappeared on the child’s right cheek as she sucked. It was exactly the way Harold sucked his fingers as a baby, but unlike his daughter, Harold had stopped sucking by the time he was six months old.
Still, the first time he saw her doing it—the day she was born—Harold was so touched he stood in front of the mirror in the hospital bathroom, his fingers in his mouth that way for the first time since he was a baby. He hadn’t realized until then that he also had a dimple on his right cheek. It almost seemed like proof that she might actually be his, although the chance of that, he knew, was less than point five percent. Heidi acted as if of course the child were his, and they didn’t tell anyone else about what they had done. They didn’t even tell their parents.
Early on, as an infant at least, Ava did look like Harold, but he knew even then that he wasn’t her real father. Even before the doctor confirmed that the procedure had worked, Harold knew. He could tell that Heidi had conceived because she started to smell slightly sour to him, or rotten, the way people sometimes smell different and off-putting when they’re sick, almost like a natural warning to those around them. If Ava were his child biologically, certainly he wouldn’t have felt repelled by her in this way.
When Harold pictured the procedure that had created his daughter, he saw Heidi with her hips lifted in the air and a doctor between her legs, funneling thick, fetid semen into his beautiful wife. Heidi insisted on going to the fertility clinic alone. Harold knew she was trying to save him the humiliation—she didn’t want him sitting at her side, obviously the deficient one. Harold’s beautiful, capable wife, on her back, alone in a hospital bed in a different city, so that no one (not even Heidi’s obstetrician), would know what they had done.
And Harold would wait for her at a nearby hotel—they spent way more than they could afford at the time on that hotel because neither of them could handle it if the room were even the slightest bit seedy. She’d come to the room and lie on her back on the bed, and he had to make himself come inside her. She barely moved, braced herself there on the bed, as if there were already a delicate, fully formed baby inside her and she was afraid he might hurt it. But this was part of the procedure, a way to include poor Harold and ensure that they would never be certain if the child were his or not—the doctor had actually said this—but Harold knew they were just humoring him, the way you humor a child, asking him to open a jar for you after you’ve already loosened the lid. Harold really had no part in creating his daughter—it was the doctor, the donor, and Heidi, as a trio, who brought the child into the world, a feat more impressive than any other he’d witnessed in his life, and Harold’s only role was to pretend he’d been involved.
Heidi did everything she could to make him feel otherwise. She was adamant that they request a donor who was exactly like Harold—she weighed and measured him, took photographs and pulled hair from his head to include with their portfolio. A Jewish lawyer, she’d even insisted, although, in those days, almost all of the donors were medical students. He was lucky, he supposed, that they ended up with Ava, a sort of extension of her mother who seemed so completely girl that it was hard to imagine any part of her was made from a man.
As soon as Heidi gave birth to Ava, or as soon as she stopped nursing at least, she smelled like herself again. It was such a relief to Harold that he found himself pressing his nose to the top of her head as often as he could, just to reassure himself that the change hadn’t been permanent.
“I’m tired,” he told his wife now. “I’ve had a long day. She needs to go to her room.”
“OK,” Heidi agreed. Her hand stroked the girl’s head. “As soon as you come back. Go ahead,” she said, and then she pulled her nightshirt down over her chest and smiled at Harold, as if she knew all along what was worrying him. “Go get washed up,” she said.
Their bathroom looked like something you’d find in a boutique hotel—white marble walls with swirls of gray, see-through glass shower doors and a jacuzzi tub, two sinks that looked like fancy serving bowls, so that Harold always felt like he was doing something wrong when he spit into them.
There was a large window just behind the toilet through which Harold could see most of his backyard. It was the backyard that convinced him to buy the house. The kidney-shaped swimming pool was surrounded by lush and dark green foliage that, at this time of year, was just shy of overgrown. The previous owners installed floodlights in some of the trees, and Heidi, as a surprise for Harold, had a switch for those lights installed just next to the toilet so that he could stand there and look out at his yard, even at night.
He had four flowerbeds in his view from the bathroom, petals in every color you could imagine. But what Harold loved most were the trees—he had twenty-one trees on the property, including a number of enormous sycamores and lindens, a few of which had been growing on the land for over a hundred years. The trees were so plentiful, so big, that their long, thick branches and ample leaves blocked his view of virtually everything but the sky that lay beyond his property line. Harold owned those trees just like he owned the house. He owned the beautiful grass and paid another man to mow it.
As a child, he didn’t even know it was possible to own elements of nature. The trees on his street in Brooklyn belonged to the city, to all of his neighbors. He lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his parents and slept in the living room, which also served as his father’s study. His father’s newspapers were stacked on every surface, and even Harold’s small dresser was filled mostly with his father’s books. His father, who had never had the opportunity to attend college, was nonetheless setting an example for his son—A boy must study!—he’d say to Harold, allowing him only an hour a day to play outside with his friends. But Harold never felt deprived, and he liked sleeping in the living room. It made him feel mature and responsible, as if he had a post at the front of the apartment, and it was his job to remain at his post and protect his family as they slept.
His father still lived in that small apartment, though his mother passed away just one month after Ava was born. According to the doctors, Harold’s infertility was likely caused by a complication when he was in utero, a medication his mother was given while she was pregnant with him, although Harold never told his mother anything about this. She met Ava only once, sitting in that very living room.
I think she looks just like me, his mother had said, smiling down at this baby who belonged, really, to a stranger, a man and his family whose name they would never know, and Harold’s mother sat there brimming with pride, having no idea that she’d produced a son who was basically a dud. Of course his mother couldn’t have begun to guess what they’d done—chances were she had no idea it was even possible to make a baby the way they had—it would have seemed like science fiction to her, or the realm of the rich and famous. I couldn’t be happier, she’d said that night. I couldn’t be more proud.
Harold felt so ashamed for her in that moment he could barely stand to look at the gleeful expression on her face. “She’s too emotional. It’s embarrassing,” he told Heidi as soon as they were out the door.
After that one time, they made excuses to avoid seeing his parents until his father called one night to say that his mother had a massive, fatal heart attack.
The truth was that the death of Harold’s mother made it much easier for him to pretend that they were a regular family. In fact, he and Heidi told Ava that she took after his mother. You have the same exact body type, they’d tell her, though that was really only true when Ava was a chubby toddler. But they still went on and on about it, both of them, Harold and Heidi, saying it so often that most of the time they forgot how far from the truth it really was.
After he changed out of his clothes, brushed his teeth and washed his face and wiped down the sink, Harold rinsed the bathtub, where the child had clearly bathed that evening, though she had a bathroom of her own. There were still bubbles by the drain and one of Ava’s books left on the lip of the tub. Harold wondered if Heidi had bathed with her—sometimes it was the only way to convince Ava to get clean.
In fact, he reminded himself, she’d gone through a stage when she actually liked to get into the shower with Harold. She liked to pretend that she had to get ready for work in the morning just like him. As soon as he’d start to get undressed, she’d strip down along with him and follow him into the shower. They kept a bar of soap in there for each of them—a big bar and a little heart-shaped bar, though mostly Ava would just stand with her body pressed into the corner of the stall, looking up at him, trying her best to stay out of the water.
Harold actually enjoyed their little ritual, though he was somewhat relieved when she outgrew it. It was easier to get himself showered without her right there under him, always having to worry that she was going to slip or get soap in her eyes and start screaming. But he did wonder why things had changed, so one day he asked her about it. “How come you don’t like to get ready for work with me anymore?” he said naively to the girl, who must have been three years old at the time.
“I don’t like you,” Ava had said in response, as if this were just a fact she’d never bothered to share before.
“You don’t like me?” Harold repeated, just to make sure he’d heard her correctly.
“It’s your penis, Daddy,” she’d explained. “I don’t like your penis.”
He opened the bathroom window and stood in front of it bare-chested, so he could feel the warm breeze on his skin as he stared into his backyard. Harold ran four miles every morning and swam for a least an hour every Saturday and Sunday. Tomorrow, he thought, he’d give Ava another swimming lesson. He’d get Heidi to come in the water with them to keep the girl calm. He pictured his intern standing at the side of the pool watching them: Harold (more fit than she’d probably imagined), Harold’s sexy wife, and Harold’s beautiful child. He wasn’t really so different from any other man with a young daughter—it wasn’t supposed to feel any different than it did.
Harold walked back to the bedroom in just his boxer shorts. He stood at the foot of the bed and smiled at his wife and daughter. “OK,” he said, “I have an idea. You and me, Ava, let’s go to your room and read a nice long book. It’s after midnight, so this is a very generous offer,” he said.
Ava stayed curled against her mother, her fingers in her mouth. She was blinking slowly, as if she were already half asleep. Harold could almost feel his own body in the bed, curled against Heidi the way Ava was.
“It’s time,” he said, and as he leaned toward her, Ava jumped up and pulled her fingers from her mouth; her other hand flew up into the air. “I have an idea,” she said, waving her arm and bouncing on the bed. “You sleep in my bed! You be the baby and I’ll be the Daddy!”
An image of the girl, sucking on his wife’s breast, flashed in Harold’s mind. He looked at his wife, who was smiling now, and wondered if she still loved him as she did when they married.
“Good, good, good,” his daughter chanted, as if it had already been agreed upon. She stood up on the bed and jumped, holding onto her mother’s shoulders, so that the two of them bounced in unison.
“It’s too late for this,” Harold managed to say. He had to say it again because his daughter was laughing and he wasn’t sure they’d heard him. When he said it a third time, the girl stopped jumping and turned to face him.
“I’m sleeping here,” Ava said, hands on her hips, looking right into Harold’s eyes. She was grinning and fearless, as if she and Harold were playing a game and she knew she was going to win.
Harold almost felt sorry for the girl when her mother took his side. “Go ahead,” Heidi said to the girl now, “Go with your father.”
Ava cried for another ten minutes after that, clinging to her mother, Harold sitting at the foot of the bed, his hand rubbing his wife’s calf. When Ava finally quieted down, Heidi nodded to Harold, giving him permission to finally take the child to her bed.
He held her tightly in his arms, and she laid her wet cheek on his bare shoulder. He closed the door to his bedroom behind them—he didn’t want Heidi to hear it if the girl started crying again, though Ava’s body felt so limp in his arms he couldn’t imagine she had the energy to start up again. She was basically asleep, he thought.
When he opened the door to her room, the hinges squeaked and she was startled by the sound. Her whole body jerked awake, and then she was crying again. He leaned forward to put her into the bed, but she clung to him, Harold bent at the waist over the bed and Ava holding tight to him with her arms and legs. But as soon as he was upright again and hugging her, she was desperate to break free of him. “Put me down,” she yelled, and then she said, more quietly, “I hate you.”
Harold put his lips to his daughter’s forehead and kissed her again and again as she twisted her neck in an attempt to avoid his kisses. She was sweating and breathing hard, but he hugged her to his chest until he got her to calm down.
He sat on the bed with the girl in his lap. She’d clearly exhausted herself—it happened often; she’d be hysterical until just a second before she shut her eyes and fell asleep for the night.
Harold was exhausted too. He cradled her body for a minute more, and then laid her on the mattress and tucked her under the covers. Still, she fought to keep her eyes open; her eyelids would start to close and then she’d pull them up again.
She was still half-awake when Harold leaned down, his mouth right over her ear. “I’m not your real father,” he said. It was the only time in his life he said this to her, the only time she ever heard the truth.